‘When you've got a child with someone like that you are never free’
Our Christmas appeal is for Sheffield charity Mums In Need
A few weeks ago, we asked readers to suggest a charity for The Tribune to support this Christmas. A member wrote back to tell us about Mums In Need, a charity which supports women who are experiencing emotional abuse after leaving relationships. They told us that Mums In Need do everything on a shoestring and weren't able to see everyone who got in touch with them as soon as they would like. They also added founder Laura Riley had a moving story — and she does. If you want to support a charity this Christmas, please consider Mums In Need. Details on how to contribute are included at the end of the piece.
By Dan Hayes
In 2010, Laura Riley looked at a map of the UK to find somewhere new to live. In different circumstances it could have been an exciting process. Did she fancy the bustle of Manchester or the beauty of Edinburgh? Chilled out Bristol or party capital Newcastle? But that’s not the way it happened at all. The process of making her decision was an altogether more desperate one. She urgently needed to get away.
After pouring her heart out to a close friend she put the pin in the map and chose Sheffield. She didn't know anything about the city back then, although she says she’s very glad she chose it now. But it was simply far enough away from her previous life in Brighton for her to feel safe.
Three years earlier she’d entered into a relationship with a man and quickly became pregnant. “I fell in love and thought it was wonderful,” she tells me over a video call from her home in Nether Edge. “And then things changed quite quickly.” As her pregnancy progressed, the kind, charming, funny and caring man she thought she’d met became abusive, manipulative, bullying and angry.
“It was just a very unpleasant environment to be in,” she says. “My friends didn’t want to visit me and be around the situation. He would make snide comments and humiliate me in front of them. I found myself at 26 living in a flat away from everyone I knew with no one coming round and I just felt very alone.”
As well as the verbal abuse, her former partner manipulated their financial situation so that Laura was paying all the bills, demanded she pay for his parking tickets and ran up a huge overdraft using her bank account. He would also go out and drive home steaming drunk and shout and swear at her, often standing just millimetres from her face. On one occasion Laura discovered a large hole in the wall that he had punched through in one of his rages.
In the end she got out, but that didn’t bring an end to her ordeal. If anything she says things got even nastier when the relationship ended. Laura was keen to keep a good contact relationship going with her former partner for the sake of their son, but she would sometimes try to pick him up and he wouldn’t be there. At one point her ex rang Laura’s dad and threatened to burn down her house.
As we chat on the video call, Laura is occasionally interrupted by her son and husband. From my very brief window into her world it seems like she now has the kind of family life that everyone has a right to expect. If not as idyllic as the fantasy island background she’s chosen for the Zoom call then at least all of the things that really matter: supportive, respectful, loving.
“I’m in a very nice, happy, stable relationship now,” she tells me. She describes her husband as a “very loving, caring man,” who supports her 100%. But it was her experience of the flip side of that which led her in 2013 to set up Mums in Need, a charity that supports women who are continuing to experience coercive control after leaving relationships. The charity’s website says Laura “helps mothers who have been where I once was.”
Based in Attercliffe, they now have five paid members of staff: two part-time administrators, two part-time case workers and Laura herself who is the charity’s only full time employee. In addition, there are also around 20 volunteers and five trustees, one of whom is her husband Antony.
It’s quite a large group for such a small charity, I say, but Laura tells me it’s nowhere near big enough to fully address the scale of the problem. She says they are currently the only organisation of their kind in the country and have helped around 300 women in Sheffield and South Yorkshire since 2014. They are working on plans to open more branches in different parts of the country.
Part of the problem is that post relationship abuse is seen as a lower priority by the police. We’ve probably all seen the adverts about coercive control in marriages and partnerships. South Yorkshire Police’s “who’s pulling your strings” campaign focuses exclusively on people who are still in an abusive relationship but in many cases the abuse can carry on long after couples split up, especially if children are involved.
Support for women who have just escaped abusive relationships does exist, with families often put up in safe houses or women’s refuges, and if the police became involved this can also provide some level of protection for survivors. But this doesn’t help those who have to live with abuse after relationships end. “When you've got a child with someone like that you are never free,” Laura says.
The 42-year-old says she had no idea if anyone else had been through what she had when she first set up Mums In Need, but was astonished by the reaction she got. As well as setting up a website she conducted a survey asking if there were other women with similar experiences and was inundated with responses.
The charity focuses on long-term support, with the women they work with usually staying with them for a period of between one and three years. The help they provide can include well-being support sessions, activities for children on things like mindfulness, legal help, financial support and counselling.
They are currently supporting 40 women and 71 children, and also have a waiting list of 25 women with 45 children. Laura says their service users or “Mins” as they call them (an acronym which stands for Mums In Need) come from all backgrounds, classes, races and walks of life.
One of these women is Sarah. She told me she first got in touch with Mums In Need in early 2020 after leaving her husband in late 2019. Like Laura, a whirlwind romance quickly turned sour after he began a campaign of emotional abuse which she says eventually led to her questioning her entire sense of self.
What started as comments about the way she dressed and who she socialised with ended up with her feeling like she had to change her entire life just to make him happy. He would say the clothes she wore were too revealing and would make the men she worked with talk about her, and said it was “pathetic” that she still had close friends from school at her age.
“It just became this pattern of him being unhappy about something and me thinking if I change this it will make him feel secure,” she tells me. “But I got to the stage where I just physically couldn’t cope with it anymore. I’d become numb and was just surviving really — trying to get through every single day.”
Now 41, Sarah tells me that despite escaping the relationship two years ago, talking about it again makes it feel like it was just yesterday. She eventually saw a post on Facebook for Mums In Need but put off contacting them for a long time as she was scared to find out the truth about the kind of relationship she’d been in. However, as soon as containing Laura she realised she had found her salvation.
“Laura has been my rock,” she says. “I literally don’t know what I’d have done if it wasn't for her. Being where I was is such a lonely place to be but to have someone who understands and can listen and offer advice is everything. As a result I’m now in a position where I can manage my ex-husband’s behaviour better.”
In terms of the future, Laura hopes to grow the charity so they can support more women, but she also wants to change the system so it looks after women and their children better than it currently does. They produced a report recently called Fit for Purpose, which contained testimony from women who were going through the family courts. She hopes her Mins experiences will lead to improvements for other mums who are living with emotional abuse and coercive control.
Sarah contributed to that report, and also volunteers at the charity in her spare time as a way of using her experiences to help other mums. “I’ve still got a long way to go but I’m gradually starting to find myself and build my confidence again,” she tells me. “If I can help someone else who is going through what I went through then maybe in some way it has been worth it.”
Mums In Need are running a crowdfunding campaign to help them pay the salary of an operations manager, a bookkeeper and a marketing and media lead for six months. To support their campaign click here.